Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: The Leopard Sword by Anthony Riches

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2017

In Book 4 of Anthony Riches' Empire series, "The Leopard Sword", we find our protagonist, Marcus Tribulus Corvus, aka Marcus Valerius Aquila, and the first and second Tungrian cohorts transferred to Germania Inferior to sort out bandits operating around the town of Tungrorum (modern Tongeren in the Belgian province of Limburg). This area was the homeland for some of the original members of the Tungrian cohorts but there have been so many battle losses that only one centurion, Julius, appears to be the only one described in the novel as having once been a local in the town.

We learn from the prolog that the bandits are lead by a mysterious figure named Obduro who wears an ornate cavalry mask to obscure his face. When the bandit leader removes his mask, his victims immediately recognize him so we can assume he is either a rogue Roman officer or well-known magistrate in the area.  Obduro also carries a lethal sword with an unusual mottling on the blade. The sword cleaves the gladius of one of Obduro's victims right in two. Immediately, I thought the blade was probably made of Damascus steel but as the story unfolds in the late 2nd century CE, I thought it was probably a bit early for that innovation.

Closeup of the watered pattern of a blade made of Damascus steel.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I double checked the history of Damascus steel and learned that such blades were manufactured from ingots of wootz steel produced using the crucible method developed in southern India in the 6th century BCE. Wootz steel was exported to India's surrounding neighbors but was not recorded as exported to the Middle East until the 3rd century CE, although examples of weapons made of the steel could have been circulated somewhat earlier. Thinking about implications of this to the plot, I worried about our hero Marcus, heretofore the ultimate swordsman, since he does not possess any weapons that could withstand a blow from such a blade.

Despite the depredations of the bandits, the Tungrians are not particularly welcomed when they arrive to reinforce the existing legion led by an arrogant young and totally inexperienced aristocrat of the senatorial class who resents taking orders from Tribune Scaurus, a mere equestrian. Tribune Scaurus has to pry information out of the local officers and magistrates to even begin to plan for operations against the bandits, made even more difficult by the presence of a thick forest (the Ardennes) used as a haven for the outlaws. The forest is also the lair of the fierce Gallo-Roman goddess known as Arduinna represented (in the novel) as a huntress riding a boar.

Historical Note: There appears to be disagreement among scholars as to the form of Arduinna. A famous sculpture of a female goddess astride a boar found in the Jura Mountains was dubbed Arduinna in spite of the fact that it was not found in the Ardennes and was not accompanied by an inscription identifying it as the goddess. The fact that the boar is known to be a sacred animal to the Celts and the figure riding it is female with the weapons of a huntress led some scholars to identify it with Arduinna because Arduinna was recognized in Celtic mythology as the goddess of woodlands, wildlife, the hunt, and the moon. The only support for belief in this incarnation of the goddess was recorded by Gregory of Tours who described the destruction of a large stone statue of the Roman goddess Diana in the village of Villers-Devant-Orval in the Ardennes in the 6th century CE. It was thought to have replaced an original of Arduinna after Romanization of the area.

Sculpture of a headless huntress astride a boar found in the Jura Mountains
now conserved in the Musée des antiquités nationalesSt-Germain-en-Laye
We learn that Marcus has followed the example of his tribune and embraced Mithras as the object of his worship.

Historical note: The Mithraic mysteries were thought by the Romans to have been adopted from Persian or Zoroastrian sources. Worshippers of Mithras had a complex system of seven grades of initiation and communal ritual meals. These attributes in some ways paralleled early Christianity and generated a rivalry between the two cults.

A relief of Mithras slaying the bull (Tauroctony) found in
a Mithraeum in Rome, Italy.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch
at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum of Rome
in Rome, Italy © 2005

Initiates called themselves syndexioi, those “united by the handshake”. They met in underground temples, called Mithraea, which survive in large numbers. Numerous archaeological finds, including meeting places, monuments, and artifacts, have contributed to modern knowledge about Mithraism throughout the Roman Empire. The iconic scenes of Mithras show him being born from a rock, slaughtering a bull, and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). About 420 sites have yielded materials related to the cult. Among the items found are about 1000 inscriptions, 700 examples of the bull-killing scene (tauroctony), and about 400 other monuments. It has been estimated that there would have been at least 680 Mithraea in Rome. However, no written narratives or theology from the religion survive.

So, we end up with two groups of combatants, both religiously devoted but to starkly different deities, one founded in the east and the other, the west.

Tribune Scaurus and Centurion Julius also discover the city is in the stranglehold of street gangs who extort protection money from the local taverns and brothels. This becomes a particular problem for Julius who discovers his long-lost first love running a brothel trapped in the gangsters' web. They also uncover a scam involving the grain shipments to the legions along the Rhenus (Rhine) River.

Historical note: Street gangs were a problem in larger settlements throughout the Roman Empire. We have examples of their violent nature described by none other than Marcus Tullius Cicero. Unfortunately for Cicero, in the course of his political career, he became the target of street gangs manipulated by Publius Clodius Pulcher from a Roman aristocratic family. In a letter to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero describes the escalating violence that engulfed him:

"On 3 November an armed gang drove the workmen from my site, threw down Catalus' portico which was in the process of restoration by consular contract under a senatorial decree and had nearly reached the roof stage, smashed up my brother's house by throwing stones from my site, and then set it on fire. This was by Clodius' orders, with all Rome looking on as the firebrands were thrown...Accordingly, on 11 November as I was going down the Via Sacra, he came after me with his men. Uproar! Stones flying, cudgels and swords in evidence. And all like a bolt from the blue.”

Of course, Cicero simply hired another gang headed by Titus Annius Milo to deal with Clodius.

Although our protagonist Marcus is not as central to the story initially as he normally is, Centurion "Two Knives", has his hands full, too, in the climactic conclusion trying to withstand Obduro's swordsmanship, that is quite formidable even under normal circumstances, and find a way to defeat Obduro's nearly invincible weapon.

Once again Riches provides us with plenty of gritty, realistic action and finely wrought characters. There is not as much interplay between Marcus' centurion brotherhood as in previous novels, which I missed, but the recurring characters of Scaurus and Julius are explored in more depth. My only reservation about the plot was a strategic blunder committed by Tribune Scaurus that I don't think, with his military acumen (as characterized in past novels), he would have made. The blunder included leaving Julius' sweetheart in a dangerous position as well, requiring Julius to risk his life in an attempt to rescue her. This situation also should have been obviously apparent to Julius from the beginning and easily avoided. Still, the pacing kept you immersed in the narrative and the climax was both thrilling and satisfying.

A Kindle Preview: